The Coen brothers’ latest is based in part on the Odyssey (a prologue credits the story to Homer). But its title comes from that most sublime of Preston Sturges classic comedies, “Sullivan’s Travels,” made in 1941. The title character is a successful director of silly comedies (like “Hey Hey in the Hayloft”), but he wants to make a serious movie about the Depression, and he wants to call it — “O Brother Where Art Thou.” That movie never got made, until now. But in sly Coen brothers fashion (these are the guys behind “Fargo” and “Barton Fink”), this movie has as much to do with “Hey Hey in the Hayloft” as it does with Sullivan’s vision of a penetrating dissection of the lot of the laborer.
Like the Odyssey, this is the story of a man named Ulysses who is trying to get home to his wife (here called Penny instead of Penelope) before she marries one of her suitors. There are other echoes to that classic saga, from a blind seer who predicts that they will not find the treasure they seek to a one-eyed villain and three singing sirens to distract the travelers from their journey.
But this Ulysses is no war hero from ancient Greece. It is America during the Depression, and Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) is a prisoner on a chain gang in Mississippi. He persuades the two men chained to him, Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) to esape with him so they can get a hidden treasure. They have to get to it right away because the area will be flooded in two weeks as part of a project to bring electricity to the community.
They make their way home, meeting up with an assortment of oddball characters, including bank-robbing legend George “Babyface” Nelson. They get some money by singing for a man who records bluegrass. They cross paths with two bitter opponents in an upcoming election for governor. The incumbent is Governor Menelaus “Pass the Biscuits” Pappy O’Daniel (Charles Durning). He and his cronies all have huge bellies, with pants that reach to their chests to be held by suspenders. O’Daniel’s opponent, Homer Stokes, is selling himself as a man of the little people who wants to clean house, and he makes campaign appearances with a midget and a broom to show that he means it.
McGill and his friends do their best to evade the sheriff and make their way home, amidst washed-out landscapes. As always, the Coen brothers present an array of quirky characters with astonishing faces, closer to gargoyles and caricatures than to the usual Hollywood smooth prettiness. Delmar’s lashless, lipless, neckless head makes him look like a fetus or an alien. O’Daniel almost looks like a biscuit, instead of a man who’s just eaten too many of them.
And there is the offbeat dialogue — when Delmar, just baptized, says he has been saved by Jesus and a black guitar player says he just sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads, McGill replies, “Well, I guess I’m the only one who remains unaffiliated.” He also explains that “It’s a fool who looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.” McGill is passionately devoted to a hair pommade called “Dapper Dan’s,” and spends a lot of time making sure his hair is just right, completely ignoring any other aspect of hygiene or appearance.
This is a lighter story than many of the Coens’ previous movies, which makes it easy to forgive the parts that don’t work very well, especially when we have the pleasure of the year’s finest soundtrack, sheer bluegrass joy.
Parents should know that the movie has some mild language and some incidents reflecting the racism of its setting, including a KKK rally and attempted lynching.
Families who see the movie should talk about its origins in the greatest of all epics, and how that story has endured. They might also want to talk about the symbolism of fire and water throughout the movie (notice the way that the sheriff’s dark glasses always reflect fire).
Families who enjoy this movie should see “Sullivan’s Travels” and compare the two, especially the scenes in both where the prisoners watch a movie. Families will also enjoy other Sturges classics like “The Lady Eve” and “The Palm Beach Story.”